Gay poet for the ages
by Tim Pfaff
My introduction to the poetry of C.P. Cavafy came when author Anne Lamott thrust a copy of the Edmund Keely-Philip Sherrard translation of the Collected Poems – the one to have then – into my hand and said something like, "Here," meaning "Eureka; read this." It crossed the Pacific with me and has remained a companion because, like the wider world I sought, Cavafy is less a text than a place you can inhabit.
That world just got bigger and better – and about how many other things can you say that these days? – with Daniel Mendelsohn's new translation of the Collected Poems and, in an equally important volume, The Unfinished Poems (Knopf). Although his new rendering of the poems will frequently make you gasp, it's not because Mendelsohn has made them prettier. He's given them back their sturdy skeletons and firm flesh.
When the Alexandrian poet, a lifelong smoker, died on his 70th birthday, in 1933, the tracheotomy he had undergone for the cancer of the larynx that finally took him off had for years reduced what was, by reliable accounts, one of the most spell-binding speaking voices of his day to a coarse whisper. Mendelsohn also gives him back that larynx, and his tongue.
As Emily Dickinson's survivors had with her odd, ecstatic, uncompromising verse, previous Cavafy translators had tried to normalize his poems' language to make them more accessible, if not more saleable. I see no point in rounding on them now, having served me as well as they did for a decade. But the way Mendelsohn renders the sheer directness of Cavafy's utterance, its unadorned yet transcendent eloquence, you wonder why they bothered.
The "book" on Cavafy is that he spent drab days, Dickinson-like, caring for his obese, dying mother and/or toiling in the Alexandrian government bureaucracy, and his nights, un-Dickinson-like, trolling the rich Alexandrian waters for sex, for sale and otherwise, with young men. But Mendelsohn's fascinating introductions to these two volumes (and a November 20, 2008 article in The New York Review of Books you'd do well to Google) make it clear that Cavafy's life was at least as colorful as many of his colleagues in the Belle Epoque (Proust's, say) and that, anyway, he found time to extract from it some of the very greatest poetry of the last century. Then obscure, he now is the greatest gay poet between Walt Whitman and John Ashbery if, that is, you include Ashbery (whom I admire greatly and understand hardly at all).
Who could not understand, from its title, "And I Got Down a
Hard on the heels of the Oscar Wilde trial, there were reasons not to publish gay poems as unambiguous as Cavafy's. The stories, the best of them Mendelsohn's, of the private ways they were first published – and Cavafy's steady opening up to the world without – will make the heart of anyone interested in gay history pound.
And few people of the last century were more absorbed in history than Cavafy, whose other strand of poems, beyond the erotic, were the ones about historical figures – most prominently, his fellow Alexandrian Caesarion, son of Anthony and Cleopatra, about whom he wrote and rewrote throughout his life – and their not dissimilar struggles with the ravages of time. Like characters in Benjamin Britten operas from Billy Budd to Death in Venice, Cavafy goes into reveries about "immortals" you're unlikely ever to have heard of (but real, historical figures). Still, their words, from beyond, will "sound" as potently as they do in Britten.
The unfinished poems, published for the first time in English here, are among the finest and most mature utterances of Cavafy the tireless polisher. The first of them, "The Item in the Paper," confirms what a poet of the future, not only the past, Cavafy was. In it, a young man reads an account of the death of a man the newspaper decries for his "depraved, disgraceful, corrupted morals."
"Contempt," his response. "And grieving inwardly he/ recalled an evening from the year before/ which they had spent together, in a room/ that was half hotel, half brothel: afterward/ they didn't meet again. Contempt/ And he recalled the sweet/ lips, and the white, the exquisite,/ the sublime flesh that he hadn't kissed enough."